Here it is, Whisky & Words #100. I have saved a good one for this, an old whisky, Laphroaig 25. Age does not improve everything (my joints for example) but it sure does magic to whisky. I have not had a lot of experience with really old whiskies: a Talisker 25 I ordered at a nice restaurant in Manhattan and a 34-year old valinched right from the cask at Balvenie are my benchmarks.
Those were very special whiskies and they made a deep impression on my palate. Other than those, I have tried a number of Scotches of moderate age, 15 to 18 years, and while those are quite good and show improvement over the garden variety 12, they did not have the magic of the multi-decade-aged spirits. That Talisker and the Balvenie cask belong in a different class of spirit.
Ardbeg has done well in presenting well-designed No-Age-Statement (NAS) releases that have proven worthy of their (usually) high prices. Their Corryvreckan (“heady, intense and powerful”) and Uigeadail (“deep, smoky notes with luscious, raisiny tones”) are uniquely flavorful, well-finished drams, and they should be, being in the over-$90 club. An Oa was introduced recently (for a whisky)—in 2017. I actually purchased mine in 2020 but it’s been waiting for a review, as other events (pandemic, political chaos, moving house—you know, the usual stuff) have taken my attention.
The CorryVee and Uigeadail had stories, and so does An Oa. On their website, Ardbeg tell the tale that in their new oaken “Gathering Vat” (marrying tun in other parlance) “whiskies from several cask types – including; sweet Pedro Ximenez; spicy virgin charred oak; and intense ex-bourbon casks….” they marry their final product to produce “smoky power, mellowed by a delectable, smooth sweetness.” Sounds good. I’m especially interested in the ‘intense’ ex-bourbon casks, so I sent an email to inquire.
As mentioned in the review of their 10-year expression, Glengoyne is run by a family firm (Ian MacLeod Distillers). It’s interesting to review the smaller producers, who manage to compete with multibillion-dollar giants like LVMH ($54b revenues) and Diageo ($18b revenues). The smaller companies cannot achieve equivalent economies of scale as these multinationals who have attendant pricing power. For an example take Glenmorangie. A holding of LVMH, Glenmorangie offer an 18-year expression available for $121 locally, to Glengoyne’s 18-year at $196.
Glenmorangie can offer lower prices as, with 12 stills, they have six times the yearly output of Glengoyne and, with LVMH behind them, benefit from large firm economies in marketing. Yet smaller distillers do flourish; they focus on their niche, messaging and product quality. They can be nimble and selective. The Glenmorangie malt master(s) have a huge stable to manage (not only multiple vintages, but also variants such as Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, Nectar d’Or, a line of ‘prestige‘ releases, etc.). How much focus can the Glenmorangie malt masters put on any one expression? Are they able to replicate at scale the obsessive attention a smaller producer can apply to an expression? It must be a challenge. For what it’s worth, I reviewed the Glenmorangie 18, and it was pretty good, but unremarkable. At a small distiller like Glengoyne, you’re going to have more focus from the malt master on their smaller line of expressions. That’s the theory.
Glengoyne is a property of a private company (self-described family firm) Ian MacLeod Distillers, who have in addition to Glengoyne another 4 single malt brands (Tamdhu, Rosebank, MacLeod’s, Shieldaig) as well as six blends, a rum and a gin brand. You’ll see Lang Brothers on the label of Glengoyne, but that’s a brand owned by MacLeod.
Most distillery brands have a hook, and Glengoyne’s is patience: “UNHURRIED SINCE 1833”, and “The slowest stills in Scotland” declares the web page of Glengoyne. A highland producer (distilled in the highlands, aged across the road in the lowlands), they claim their whisky takes about 3 times as long to distill. With but three stills, they produce about one million liters per annum. Compare to Glenfarclas, another family firm, 6 stills (4 active) and four times the output, Glengoyne is truly an intimate operation.
Early in my whisky journey and well before my trip to Scotland, I had tried Aberlour 12 and was underwhelmed. But we had a good tour at Aberlour and an excellent tasting at the end, and I remember being more enamored of their product at that time. So it is time to revisit and do a proper review.
Aberlour was established by one James Fleming in 1880, an enterprising man who pursued various businesses to become a prominent local landowner and philanthropist. For instance, he funded the building of the Victoria Bridge, which spans the river Spey not far from the distillery (I’ve got a photo in my Aberlour tour post). The distillery has passed to multiple hands and since 1975 has been a part of Pernod Ricard.
The 12-year expression is ‘double cask matured’ in sherry seasoned and oak casks. Their web site and bottle labeling are not entirely clear on whether they age in the sherry casks for a full 12 years and marry those with ex-bourbon casks, but that appears to be the case given the text on the carton back (see photo at left, click to enlarge). The bottle is a stout, rounded shape with a handy bulge in the neck that makes for steady pours. Labeling is understated. The effect is classy and restrained.